MIAMI, Fla. — Grant Patton watched from the bleachers at Sun Life Stadium Saturday as hundreds of microphones and cameras swarmed his teammates during BCS media day.
From blockbuster names like Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert to promising young bucks like Chris Brown and Davonte Neal, reporters clamored to know more about their thoughts on Alabama, on how the freshmen felt playing for a national championship so early in their careers or how the seniors felt playing for the title after years of mediocrity.
Another cluster of cameras surrounded Mike Golic Jr. & Co. as they flung ping pong balls off the crystal Coaches’ Trophy for a special edition of “Trick Shot Monday.”
But Patton sat in the upper echelon of the bleachers with a handful of fellow walk-ons and fourth-stringers, guys who didn’t draw the camera’s eye.
I recognized Patton from pictures he sent in for the Sam Grewe story I wrote in November. Patton had grown close to the Middlebury teenager fighting cancer, and we had spent an hour on the phone talking about Sam.
As Patton moved away from his teammates to talk about his own inspiring journey, defensive line coach Mike Elston called out: “Grant, you’re getting interviewed!”
Barring catastrophic injuries down the line or suspensions through the first four spots on the depth chart, Patton won’t see the field Monday night, just as he hasn’t all year.
Not that the life-long Irish fan minds.
“I always said that all the work, everything would be worth it just to run out (of the tunnel) once,” Patton said. “But to do it six, seven times and now I get to do it for the national championship game? It’s been a dream come true.”
Like a certain walk-on before him, the Louisville native wasn’t accepted into Notre Dame the first two times he applied, so he attended Holy Cross College down the street. Patton finally got into Notre Dame as a junior and promptly joined his dormitory’s intramural football team.
In March, Patton threw himself into 15 grueling spring practices for a shot at a walk-on spot on the football team he grew up watching. Not a scholarship. Not a spot on the two-deep.
Just a chance to strap on that golden dome. And he earned it.
As Patton walked out of the stadium after the Blue/Gold scrimmage in April, fans asked for his autograph.
“‘This was me last year,’” Patton remembered thinking. “It was very, very strange.”
“It was surreal sitting there and Manti (Te’o) walks up and he’s like ‘Hey, Grant, can you hand me that?’ and I thought ‘Is this real life right now?’”
He knew the oft-touted “Notre Dame brotherhood” was for real the moment the entire defensive line welcomed him to the family.
He knew this year’s Notre Dame squad was special when he saw its unrelenting optimism throughout its ugly near-loss to Pitt.
“Ara Parseghian once said, ‘A Notre Dame team can have no breaking point,’” Patton said. “There was a moment against Pittsburgh that it looks like it’s about to break. You have to have a game you might lose and you come up big and win. Alabama did last year against Tenneessee. And for us, that’s when it hit everybody. This can be done.”
Though walk-ons don’t travel with the team for most away games, Patton sat on the edge of his couch for the regular-season finale against USC.
If Notre Dame beat the Trojans, the Irish would go to Miami for the title game. And Patton would be going with them.
“I watched the clock tick down,” Patton said of the USC game.
When it hit zero, the ensuing flood of texts messages and Facebook posts from excited friends was “unbelievable,” Patton said.
Suddenly, the man who just wanted to run through the tunnel once was heading to South Beach for the national championship.
“I’ve cheered and been broken hearted so many times in 22 years over Notre Dame football,” he said. “I’m just very blessed and honored to represented the university in a small way.”
On a team where ever member has his purpose, Patton was assigned to play the role of Alabama nose guard Jesse Williams, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound Australian behemoth known for his 600-pound bench press.
For Patton, that meant getting double-teamed by offensive linemen Zack Martin and Chris Watt.
“He gives us a great look,” Watt said of Patton. “He hits us hard every time, even though we might not like it at the time.”
Patton was just thankful to make it through the week.
“That was an interesting week,” Patton said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to go to class that day or the morning before or the next day.”
Contact Rachel Terlep at firstname.lastname@example.org